“Who are you angry at?”
This is the very first exchange you hear in The First Purge, and to be fair, you can’t accuse the franchise’s latest entry of burying the lede. Given that the person answering the question is a scarred, grinning, maniacal caricature of a crack fiend – he’ll be back, trust us on this – and is spitting out ev-er-y sin-gle-syl-la-ble as if it were weapons-grade cobra venom, you wouldn’t say this pulped-up prequel traffics in subtlety, either. Come back with us to the very beginning, when the idea of free-for-all of legalized mayhem was but a gleam in a racist government official’s eye and a mere what-if hypothesis for a behavioral scientist (Marisa Tomei). We now get to see the trial run, the beta version of this sanctioned cleansing-cum-nightmare scenario. As with all great sagas, it begins on Staten Island.
The outer borough is the location that the New Founding Fathers of America – the series’ populist political party that has swept into the White House and bears no resemblance to any Constitution-thumping or birther-supporting movements, nope, that’s for sure – have picked to be the spot of the initial experiment involving sheer anarchy loosened after hours. You can tell who the bad guys are right away: They’re the ones wearing flag pins. Having paid financially strapped locals to participate in P-Day ground zero, the government plans on broadcasting the dusk-to-dawn violence via surveillance drones and contact lenses equipped with mini-cameras; this mandatory eye ware for Purgers also happens to glow in the dark, all the better to eerily peer out of windows and shadows, my dear. You can’t have collective catharsis without capitalism, crazy-huge ratings and some kick-ass Hot Topic aesthetics, as any sociologist will tell you. A Freddy Krueger-ish glove with syringes instead of razors helps, too.
Not everyone is on board, of course: A neighborhood activist (Lex Scott Davis) is leading anti-Purge protests, while the area’s rich drug kingpin (Y’lan Noel, a.k.a. Daniel from Insecure) is staying out of it because this everybody-kills-each-other-with-impunity shit is bad for business. Then the community organizer’s brother (Joivan Wade) decides he’s signing up so he can get paid and ends up in over his head. His older sister goes looking for him. As for the dealer, he’s found out that a ménage à trois gone bad was actually meant to be a hit on him, contracted by an opportunistic rival. Which means all of three of them are out on the streets when the authorities decide to throw a wild card in to the mix: namely, white-supremacist gangs that have been imported in to stir shit up and get the killing “party” started in earnest.
When James DeMonaco’s The Purge first hit theaters in 2013, it was a high-concept home-invasion idea drizzled with dystopic flavoring, a pinch of class commentary and a few slasher-flick tricks. Starting with the two follow-ups, The Purge: Anarchy (2014) and The Purge: Election Year (2016), the sauce itself became the meal – the franchise has reinvented itself from yuppie nightmare to gritty, salt-of-the-scorched-earth action/horror, doubling down on the gory kills and creepy-as-fuck masks. And the third one overtly politicized the proceedings, dropping in a female senator running for President, divisive-rhetoric debating and angry, disenfranchised supporters of the rogue NFFA party as an unstable dissident force.
What a difference a few years and one fucked-up administration makes. Once you’ve seen what actual federal fearmongering disguised as policy looks like and witnessed real-life Nazi cosplay on the streets of America end in bloodshed and fatalities, it’s tougher to view such things as entertainment, cautionary or otherwise. Both The First Purge‘s director Gerard McMurray (the man responsible for the underrated black-fraternity hazing drama Burning Sands) and DeMonaco, who wrote the screenplay, inherently know this. But they’ve also figured out that watching a black action hero gun down killers in Klan hoods is one hell of a cathartic image to watch onscreen in 2018, and deliver as many similarly incendiary set pieces as they can once the movie’s second half kicks into Purge Overkill mode. By the time the dead-ringer-for-Reagan Übervillain shows up, you’ll believe that the movie’s druglord has been secretly trained by Navy SEAL ninjas and that dozens of professional mercenaries are no match for one ripped-up dude in a tank top. (If nothing else, this film makes a solid case for Noel as a next-gen Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Casting agents, take note.)
Scenes like those turn The First Purge into its own self-contained Purge-event for filmgoers, a space for vicarious violent thrills sans consequences and a chance for those who feel helpless in today’s sociopolitical climate to blow off steam in the form of hate-criminals getting what’s coming to them. (Full disclosure: It me.) All of which means you might be tempted to ignore the massive amount of mixed-messaging going on, like the fact that “ironic” N.R.A. billboards are prominently placed in the frame and these firearm fetishists are namechecked as collaborators, yet our hero wins the day by raiding his own personal arsenal of illegal assault rifles. Or conveniently forget that no actor, Oscar-winning or otherwise, can say lines like “Some basic tenets must be abandoned! Religious dogma must be dropped!” and keep their dignity intact. Or neglect the fact that it blames media overload for contributing to the cacophony yet literally drops a trailer for The Purge TV show in the end credits.
This is a movie, in other words, that begins with that nihilistic aforementioned exchange and ends with an inspiring three word mantra – “Now we fight” – while a growing African-American and Latinx crowd begins to march on those that have oppressed them and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” plays on the soundtrack. Only this is a prequel and we already know the end game: total authoritarian crackdown and a populace willing to killing each other once a year so the 1-percent maintain a rancid status quo. Who needs a coherent text when you’ve got all this American carnage to watch? The First Purge isn’t the beginning of the end of the franchise, just the start of where the narrative’s “civility” starts to erode and where that leads. You’re always aware that you’re watching a B-movie narrative. You have to keep reminding yourself that it’s a work of fiction.